Kwesi Mugisa, Staff Reporter
John Barnes ... It was an accepted part of football the authorities never did anything, the referees never did anything ... what could the players do? - Ian Allen/Staff Photographer
FOR MANY black players plying their trade all over the globe the infamous monkey chant or throwing bananas on the pitch is the ultimate insult.
It is a gesture that attempts to denote the individual as being less than human, unintelligent primates scampering around the park simply for the sake of gimmickry and amusement. Though it's less prominent in football these days, the phenomena still remains speckled far and wide across the planet, like an incurable disease.
Understandably, those who continue to be touched by the curse have vented their frustration in various ways. Two years ago, an aggravated Samuel Eto'o attempted to leave the pitch after fans of Spanish team Real Zaragoza performed monkey chants and threw peanuts on the pitch whenever the Cameroonian international touched the ball.
Now in his fourth season at Barcelona, the talented striker still refuses to take his children to watch him play. It is a similar situation for teammate Idriss Carlos Kameni, who plays for Espanyol. In Germany, Gerard Asamoah, the first black player to play for that country, threatened to quit national duty soon after the World Cup if chanting around the German league did not subside.
The list goes on, but none of these players can claim to have faced the level of intolerance dished out to one man in the 1980s in England.
In a time when bigotry was rampant, Jamaica-born John Barnes looked the monster of discrimination dead in the eye and never seemed to flinch.
"It happened and it really meant nothing to me, it was like water off a duck's back," said the former Liverpool great.
"You see, I consider racists to be ignorant people so they did not affect me at all," Barnes remarked simply.
Born in Kingston on November 11, 1963, the son of well-respected army man Colonel Ken Barnes and his wife, Jean, a television presenter, young John showcased his talent within the confines of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) headquarters at UP Park Camp before playing in the Colts schoolboy competition for North Street high school St George's.
Moving to England at the age of 13, Barnes then playing for non-league team Sudbury Court, was spotted by Watford and signed in July 1981. He was on his way to the big time, but the experiences Barnes was to face at his new club, which gained promotion to the top flight in the 1981-82 season would be unlike any he had faced before at small-time Sudbury Court - a world away in Jamaica.
"Racism was rife. You had bananas coming on the field, you had monkey chants, you had all sorts of obscenities being shouted at you," Barnes, who was in the island recently for the Digicel Football Clinics, recalled.
"It was an accepted part of football the authorities never did anything, the referees never did anything ... what could the players do?" he said.
"Now the authorities get involved, they eject people from the ground and fine football clubs but back then it was the normal way of football in England," he said.
Move to liverpool
Six years and 65 goals later, Barnes secured a move to powerhouse team Liverpool but on his debut he was warned that it would be more of the same.
However, just as he had done before, the winger was cool and even casual in his approach. In a famous picture seen all over the world, the player, clad in the famous red of his Merseyside team, is seeing backheeling away a banana, as if he hadn't even given the symbol of degradation a second thought.
"I don't remember doing that. I mean the picture is there but bananas back then were common," Barnes said of the shot.
"The reason it all came to the fore is because I was playing for a high-profile club like Liverpool. For six years before, that happened every week, but because it was a small club it wasn't highlighted." he said.
"In terms of me being angry and wanting to fight people in the stands though, it never happened, I consider those people to be ignorant, so how could they affect any part of life or any part of my demeanour.
"You have to do what makes you comfortable with yourself. We all react differently to every situation," he said.
In June 1984, Barnes, already an established names for Liverpool, would score possibly one of his best ever goals, (albeit according to him not his favourite goal) in an England jersey against Brazil. At the Est-dio do Maracan, picking up the ball on the left wing, Barnes strolled past several defenders before rounding the 'keeper and stroking the ball into the back of the net.
A sensational goal but not even that failed to free the player from the spectre of racial abuse, on the plane ride back members of the National Front, a right wing group, which had gone to the game claiming to support England said the game had finished 1-0 because Barnes's goal didn't count. The group had opposed Barnes selection to play for England based on the fact that he was black.
Barnes went on to score 12 goals in 79 appearances for England.
Fighting the beast
Now an ambassador of the game, Barnes, an inductee in 2005 into the English Football Hall of Fame, works at fighting racism in the sport through the Kick It Out Campaign, which has attempted to eradicate racism from the sport. While positive that racism still exists in the game, Barnes is confident that players are a lot better off in England than they were 20 years ago.
"As long as there's racism in society there will be racism in all walks of society you just don't hear it anymore," Barnes said.
"Racism still exists in life ... football fans are told that any racist chanting and you're kicked out of the ground, so you keep your mouth shut and then you're racist the other six days of the week.
"However it doesn't exist in terms of black footballers not being given the opportunities as they were in the '70s or '80s.
"Then if you were a black goalkeeper or black centre back or midfielder you never made it because you were told as a black man you're fast so you don't have to think too much.
Winger or centre forward
"You weren't put in any positions of responsibility, so you were a winger or a centre forward. Back then all black players were wingers or centre forwards.
"Now, if you look at Arsenal they have had 10 black players on the field at once and England have had a black goalkeeper so there is no discrimination against you from a positional standpoint and you don't hear it in the grounds any more," he said. However, this does not mean that the former Liverpool man is quick to give the English game a pat on the back. In fact, he has found it to be even a bit hypocritical in its approach to other European countries still plagued by racism.
"When England has had a black community since 1950, how come until 1980 we were still going through it - racism? You have black people in your country and know the ramifications of the black-and-white issue," he said.
"When I was playing in the '80s we still got it (racist taunts). So how can we then come down hard on Macedonia and Estonia? They don't have black communities to deal with.
"Racist chanting is completely wrong but they do not go through every day dealing with a black and a white situation."
"Football has to come down hard on it but England should have sorted out this issue a long time ago and now it is ready to come down hard on everybody else." he said.
Feedback: kwesi.mugisa@ gleanerjm.com